27 April 2010

Anniversary: Desert One

Yes, it's been 30 years since the ill-fated attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran. Mark Bowden has a fantastic article about it over at The Atlantic that is well worth the half hour it'll take you to read it.

Gulf of Oman, April 24, 1980, Dusk
Through the failing light a lone plane moved fast and low over dark waters toward the coast of Iran. It was a big four-propeller U.S. Air Force workhorse, a C-130 Hercules, painted in a mottled black-and-green camouflage that made it all but invisible against the black water and the night sky. It flew with no lights. Inside, in the eerie red glow of the plane’s blackout lamps, seventy-four men struggled to get comfortable in a cramped, unaccommodating space. Only the eleven men of the plane’s usual crew had assigned seats; the others sprawled on and around a Jeep, five motorcycles, two long sheets of heavy aluminum (to wedge under the plane’s tires if it became stuck in desert sand), and a bulky portable guidance system that would help the other planes and helicopters find their way to Desert One. Their rendezvous was a flat, empty spot in the Dasht-e-Kavir salt desert, fifty-eight miles from Tabas, the nearest town.

Just after dark, the Hercules moved in over the coast of Iran at 250 feet, well below Iranian radar, and began a gradual ascent to 5,000 feet. It was still flying dangerously low even at that altitude, because the land rose up abruptly in row after row of jagged ridges—the Zagros Mountains, which looked jet black in the gray-green tints of the pilots’ night-vision goggles. Its terrain-hugging radar was so sensitive that even though the plane was safely above the peaks, the highest ridges triggered the loud, disconcerting horn of its warning system. The co-pilot kept one finger over the override button, poised to silence it.

The decision had been made to fly into Iran on fixed-wing transports rather than helicopters, and since then Beckwith had added still more men to “Eagle Claw,” as the rescue mission was now code-named. Most notable among them were a group of soldiers from the 75th Ranger Regiment, out of Fort Benning, Georgia, who would block off both ends of the dirt road that angled through Desert One and man Redeye missile launchers to protect the force on the first night in the event it was discovered and attacked from the air. A separate thirteen-man Army Special Forces team would assault the foreign ministry to free the three diplomats being held there: Bruce Laingen, Victor Tomseth, and Mike Howland. Also on Beckwith’s lead plane was John Carney, an Air Force major from the team that had slipped into Iran weeks earlier to scout the desert landing strip and bury infrared lights to mark a runway. He would command a small Air Force combat-control team that would orchestrate the complex maneuvers at the impromptu airfield.

Some of these men sat on and around the Jeep. The mood was relaxed. If there was one trait these men shared, it was professional calm.

They had taken off at dusk from the tiny island of Masirah. An hour behind them would come five more C-130s—one of them carrying most of the remainder of Beckwith’s assault force, which now numbered 132 men; three serving as “bladder planes,” each one’s hold occupied by two gigantic rubber balloons filled with fuel; and a back-up fuel plane carrying the last Deltas and pieces of sophisticated telecommunications-monitoring equipment.

By: Brant

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